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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

With vote narrowing, the future of Australian PM's majority hangs in balance 

A loss in the constituency of Wentworth would leave Scott Morrison without a parliamentary majority

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) embraces Liberal candidate Dave Sharma prior to his concession speech, as independent Kerryn Phelps appeared to win. EPA 
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) embraces Liberal candidate Dave Sharma prior to his concession speech, as independent Kerryn Phelps appeared to win. EPA 

As the count from a crucial Australian by-election dragged into Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced the possibility that his Liberal party may have been too quick to concede a contest that would reduce his administration to a minority government.

Mr Morrison became Australia's sixth prime minister in 10 years in August after his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull fell victim to infighting among the Liberals, and the suspense over the count in Sydney's affluent Wentworth constituency was in keeping with the unpredictable politics of recent times.

On Saturday, Mr Morrison had surrendered the seat, vacated following Mr Turnbull's retirement from politics, after the early count showed a swing of more than 20 per cent away from the Liberals.

But by Sunday evening, his candidate trailed an independent rival by 1,600 votes with several thousand votes still to be counted, the Australian Electoral Commission said.

Still claiming victory, but sounding less sure, the independent candidate Kerryn Phelps described the wait for the result as a "white-knuckle ride" in a post on her Twitter account. "Holding our breath for the AEC outcome," she tweeted.

The local doctor and popular independent candidate had been well ahead on Saturday evening as voting centre ballots were being counted. However, her rival Dave Sharma, the former Australian ambassador to Israel, had a strong showing in postal votes cast ahead of election day and has since narrowed Ms Phelps's lead considerably.

Independent Kerryn Phelps may end over a century of Liberal dominance in the Sydney seat of Wentworth, forcing Scott Morrison into minority government. EPA 
Independent Kerryn Phelps may end over a century of Liberal dominance in the Sydney seat of Wentworth, forcing Scott Morrison into minority government. EPA

The division of Wentworth has been held consistently by the Liberal party since it was formed ahead of the 1944 election and for 13 years before that its predecessor, the United Australia party.

Should the Liberals lose Wentworth, Mr Morrison's conservative coalition will probably have to rely on support from independent politicians to survive the next few months, as a general election is due by May next year.

The contest had gathered international attention after Mr Morrison's late attempt to garner support from Jewish voters, who account for 13 per cent of Wentworth's electorate, by suggesting Australia could recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv.

What impact that gambit had was unclear, but with his parliamentary majority hanging by a thread as the count continued, Mr Morrison acknowledged that whatever the outcome, voters were clearly disillusioned with his party.

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"The gap has closed by several hundred votes. There are still many postal votes to be counted," Mr Morrison said in Sydney. "But, that said, yesterday Liberal voters expressed their anger."

He added that if the margin gets as close as 100 votes, an automatic recount would be triggered that would give his conservative coalition a slim chance of retaining its one-seat majority in parliament.

It could be some days before the uncertainty is cleared as postal votes received within 13 days after the ballot are still counted.

As well as the issue of Jerusalem, Mr Morrison said that the voters of Wentworth were disillusioned by the way party rebels had dumped Mr Turnbull, who had served as the constituency's MP since 2004.